Exactly 152 years ago this week, on July 7, 1858, Fathers Isaac Thomas Hecker, Augustine Hewitt, George Deshon, and Francis A. Baker signed the Programme of Rule and Constitution of the Congregation of Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle, thus creating the community commonly known ever since as The Paulist Fathers – the first men’s religious community founded in the United States. Three days later, on July 10, 1858, New York’s Archbishop John Hughes erected the parish of St. Paul the Apostle between Holy Cross Parish (founded 1852) and Annunciation Parish (1853) on the west side of Manhattan and assigned the pastoral care of this new parish to The Paulist Fathers. (The parish originally extended almost 3 miles north from 54th St. to 109th St. and 1 mile west from 6th Avenue to the river). Father Hecker became the first pastor, as well as superior of the new community. Hecker’s vision of the mission of The Paulist Fathers was a monumental one – the conversion of America to the truth of the Catholic Faith. He envisioned St. Paul the Apostle Parish as animated by that same mission, a vibrant Catholic parish reaching out to evangelize American culture locally in New York City, and a center from which The Paulist Fathers would reach out in mission to the entire country. It has been one of my greatest joys to have served at St. Paul the Apostle Parish these past 10 years and to be a part of how the vibrant parish of today has continued to live out the mission servant of God Isaac Hecker first set for it 152 years ago.
In 2008, both St. Paul the Apostle Parish and The Paulist Fathers celebrated their common 150th anniversary with a series of special parish events here at St. Paul’s and a great community convocation in Washington, DC. The anniversary began in a very special way for me with my appointment as Vice Postulator for the Canonization Cause of the Servant of God, Isaac Thomas Hecker, which then led to my being asked to edit Isaac Hecker for Every Day: Daily Thoughts from the Founder of the Paulists (Paulist Press, 2009). From my first encounter with Hecker’s story when I was discerning my vocation in 1981, I have been fascinated by his spiritual journey and how, having found in the Roman Catholic Church what he had been seeking, he devoted all his energy to sharing what he had found with this great country which he loved so much. Being Vice Postulator for Hecker’s Cause and editing that devotional book have enabled me to immerse myself more systematically in Hecker’s experience and spirituality. God willing, I hope down the road to be able to make my own written contribution to the study and appropriation of Hecker’s theology.